Rita Moreno was driving near her home in northern California last summer when her cell phone rang. It was the head of the Screen Actors Guild, who told her that she’d been chosen to receive the Guild’s 50th Life Achievement Award.
Moreno was stunned. “I just slammed on the brakes and damn near had an accident,” says the legendary singer, dancer and actress. She quickly pulled off the road and called SAG back to make sure she had heard the news correctly.
“That award is absolutely the last thing I ever, ever thought I would get,” she says. “It’s just never entered my mind, as the song goes. So there you go—I was 82, in early December.”
When she receives her honor from close friend Morgan Freeman in Hollywood on January 18th, it will be a unique moment in a unique life.
“Truly, unless I won the Nobel Peace Prize, I don’t know that I can compare [it] to anything I’ve experienced—and that does include the Oscar,” she says, noting the difference between being honored for a single performance and for lifetime accomplishment. Moreno is the only Hispanic, and one of the few performers of any ethnicity, to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony.
As we talk, she dithers over her one-minute acceptance speech. “That’s going to be extremely difficult,” she predicts. “All I can say is, I’m Puerto Rican and can’t even say hello in a minute.”
In our interview, Moreno is effervescent and irreverent, with a genuine gift of the gab. She remains elegant and lithe, like the dancer she once was—though she says her knees are shot—and she still resembles the glamorous and sultry 1954 Life Magazine cover, which trumpeted, “Rita Moreno: An Actresses’ Catalog of Sex and Innocence.”
Her big break came playing the fiery Anita in the film version of the Broadway hit “West Side Story.” She won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her stunning performance, and then did not work again for seven years.
Despite the accolades, she was offered only black and white shoot-em-ups and gangster girl roles. “I showed them,” she says. “I just refused to work.”
Fiercely proud of her heritage, she deplores the racial prejudice she encountered when she came to Hollywood at age 17. As a Latina, with no role model or mentor, she was lonely and insecure, relegated to what she calls “dusky maiden roles,” playing squaws in buckskins and feathers or smoldering Hispanic tarts.
The whole experience, she says, was “horrible and demeaning. It was one of things that sent me to psychotherapy.”
So was her torrid and extremely toxic eight-year affair with Marlon Brando, which finally ended after she attempted suicide by downing a bottle of sleeping pills in his bedroom.
“I really, really meant business,” she reflects, describing their time together as “tumultuous, intoxicating , erotic and hilariously funny. It was really an obsession and we couldn’t let go..He was my cocaine I guess, and it drove me to extremes.”
Her doctor warned them both never to see each other again. If they did, he said, Moreno would die. (Interestingly, she continues to wear Brando’s sensuous-scent—Balmain’s Vent Vert.)
There were a number of high-profile men in her life who turned out to be duds.
Childlike Elvis Presley was amusing but a complete failure in the feathers. Excessive grinding was his sole modus operandi.
“Maybe Elvis was inhibited by inbred religious prohibitions or an Oedipal complex, or maybe he simply preferred the thrill of a denied release. Whatever put the brakes on the famous pelvis, it ground to a halt at a certain point and that was it,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir.
She stepped out with posh British literary critic Kennth Tynan until he suggested spanking. She fled and he stalked her.
Even her 46-year marriage to Dr. Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist, turned out to be a sham.
She stoically portrayed the happy housewife while her “nice Jewish husband” became increasingly tyrannical and possessive, monitoring her every move. She felt claustrophobic, entrapped like an exotic bird, but despite her angst she lacked the courage to leave. They also had a daughter and she did not want to break up the family.
“I was going insane,” she admits.”It was horrific because no one else had a clue. I played a role for a very, very long time.”
When Gordon died three years ago, she finally found her freedom. “It was an astonishing discovery,” she says. “After all the years of supervision I can do whatever I want. It was a very long time to be that unhappy.”
To make up for the lost years, she has done a variety of TV shows, movie voiceovers and one-woman concert tours. Occasionally, her repertoire includes songs from “West Side Story.” In February she will perform in her native Puerto Rico ; she’s nervous about her “inelegant” Spanish. “I came to this country when I was four and I didn’t speak it much. My syntax sucks, but audiences are very forgiving,” she says.
A longtime civil-rights activist, she was with Martin Luther King , Jr. during his “I Have Dream” speech on the Mall and remains committed to her community and local charities.
In early December she auctioned herself off for $10,000 to make and serve dinner at her home for 10 people .The money went to Accessible Housing. “I love to cook, have people around, drink wine, and laugh so when something I think is important comes up that’s what I do.”
Reflecting on her lengthy and storied career she points to three iconic films: “The King and I,” “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story.”
“Forty-six years later, the damn thing is still playing and people are still loving it and weeping and laughing and applauding it. I mean, I am in three such amazing movies.”
Now, at an age she considers her prime, she says has attained her goal. “I’m working and happy as an uneaten clam I’m relishing every moment and having the time of my life.”